Street Philosophy

Worldviews are a weird thing. We tend to believe that most people view the world in a similar way that we ourselves do–reality, politics, religion, morals, and so on–and social media certainly helps encourage this notion, but it’s not even fucking close to true.

It so happens that we tend to surround ourselves with people who think like us, believe similar things to us, and form friendships and communities with people like us. Proximity is a big thing–if you are a homosexual in a conservative small town, you will more than likely leave at the nearest opportunity. Similarly, if you are a conservative in a mixed metropolitan city that’s largely liberal, you’d want to find a reason to leave as well. With greater mobility, we’ve probably become more homogeneous in a geographic sense, at least with respect to accepted worldviews. This gives us a comforting feeling that the world is mostly “like us” but this is simply not true. In fact, you’d likely be very surprised at particular views that people you thought you know hold, if there was an opportunity where it comes out.

Social media adds another dimension to this; it’s a 24/7 medium where you interact specifically with those you select for cultural similarity. Social media breaks down all the traditional restrictions (like having someone to converse with, and in appropriate context) on when you can engage in argument, all without the need to be polite, or to listen at all.  With facebook, opposing views are actively filtered out algorithmically, and at least from what I can see, people love it–they eat it up! The effect is popularly called the echo chamber. Everyone of all stripes is pasting up memes and stats (without context) that get processed by…people that already agree with you, and these get shared, and so on. Share that US Uncut article, Red State article, that makes a caricature of opposing opinions, and explains the inability of the other side to understand the world; signal your agreement with commenters, pile on the one dissenter with one liners; feel good that you’ve just made the world a better place. Many of us are not so unreflective that we realize this isn’t really elevating us. Cognitive bias, virtue signalling, and the feel good factor is so strong that it overwhelms our reason. I’ve seen brilliant people resort to ad hominem, patient people become flippant, understanding people become short; everyone loses on the internet. In fact, tribal war has become the de facto language of internet argument, accepted as the norm. We’ve learned to shout past opponents, tune out opposing views, and make punch-lines into memes and tweets, but have seemed to lost the ability to appreciate and in many cases, understand argument.

We’ve gotten past this naive idea that media is value neutral (except when North Korea or Russia or liberal media or whatever is posting it) and that journalists have a sacred duty towards uncovering an objective truth for us. Their job is to frame, interpret, and narrate as much as it is to report (and in theory, to verify that the story itself is true). It’s not like “mainstream media” suddenly failed us or anything; this was always true although it’s tempting to think that journalistic integrity mattered more in the past. Now media is more varied, with the rise of alternative media, whether it’s small scale Internet Radio shows, left-wing media (The Young Turks, Democracy Now), right-wing media (Red State, Fox News), conspiracy media (Alex Jones), there’s a show that confirms every bias! The popular wisdom in this bedlam is to stay the fuck away, especially from the more deep end news sources that aren’t above promoting blatantly fake news (not just unverified, but demonstrably false ones that they know to be false). The problem, people say is “fake news,” but it was always true that anyone could say anything. Just how does cracking down on dissenting opinion (even if it is rather stupid) help? A long time ago, this weirdo hippy dude called Jesus of Nazareth said some things that were contrary to popular opinion too, but hey, we nailed that fucker to the cross, thank God. The real problem is that we’ve become so eager to browbeat people who disagree with us that we’re so willing to accept drivel. We’ve become so gullible, so uncritical that we lap up ridiculous news that, when it suits our cognitive biases, we accept utter garbage as fact.

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is the “weird” course in college, where the parameters of the discipline isn’t well defined like the others. To those who have never taken a philosophy class, it can seem a bit like Hogwarts, and you’d be mostly right. Think of Geek Battle: Who would win: Gandalf vs Darth Vader–argue your position. You don’t do labs, and you don’t empirically test hypotheses for the most part. You just…argue about… stuff. There’s no “rules” as to what can and can’t be discussed. A very popular topic in the early half of the 20th century philosophy was about whether traditional philosophy has any value at all or whether people were just flapping arms and uttering nonsense (imagine the awesomeness of being paid for decades to argue why your discipline has no value). If you think that this is just a game, you have good intuitions.

There is a really unusual rule to the game though, namely, that you have to use reason and logic to argue your position. Unlike politicians, lawyers, and rap battlers, you don’t get points for getting the most votes, convincing a jury/judge, or coming up with the sickest zinger, which makes it a bit unpractical, since that’s just how society rolls and our attitude seems more and more to be that this is cool. Ideally, the goal is to arrive at the truth together with your “opponent.” Of course in practice, trained philosophers are hardly immune to cognitive bias, which can be seen by the fact that they rarely change views throughout their careers. One of the unfortunate but necessary caveats of modern philosophy is that academics geeked out so hard (they too, need to eat) that the modern debates inside the ivory tower are out of touch with regular Joe’s concerns, and at a time when the regular Joe’s desperately need some philosophy and critical thinking. To use an analogy, think of the last Chess World Championships: Carlsen vs Karjakin. Non-chess people don’t want to see an analyzed to death, drawish and boring D-3 Ruy-Lopez in 10 of 16 games with no commentators. We want to talk about real issues, not ontics, Gettier problems, and possible girls (in case you think I’m kidding: This isn’t to say that philosophers stop doing this or that chess pros should be forced to play 19th century gambit chess, but I think there’s room and need for a hands-on approach that involves the public in reasoned argument about topics that are familiar to them. I’m a bit disappointed that philosophers seemed to have remained silent in (to be fair I wasn’t looking hard either) politics when there is much need for critical thinking.

I’m going to propose Street PhilosophyThe idea is to keep to topics that are accessible to the general public, expose yourself to opposing viewpoints, and to think about why you believe what you believe, which is often not as well reasoned as you might think. The main goal is to get people in the habit of questioning things.

  • Be open-minded. This is not a debate.
  • Try to keep the topics accessible.
  • Try to seek a common language with those that don’t agree with you.
  • Use reason and logic to back your views.
  • Don’t be a dick.

The initial medium I have in mind is Facebook and Slack but obviously the possibilities are endless.


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